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January 22, 2012

Syria Rejects Arab League Call for Power Transfer

Syria has rejected a new Arab League initiative for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and allow the formation of a national unity government.

The plan agreed to by Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo Sunday requires Mr. Assad to transfer power to a deputy and allow the formation of a unity government with the opposition within two months. The country's new leaders would be responsible for organizing parliamentary and presidential elections under Arab and international supervision.

Syrian state media denounced the plan Monday as a "flagrant" violation of Syrian sovereignty. Qatar said the Arab League will ask the United Nations Security Council to support the initiative.

European envoys at the United Nations swiftly hailed the plan. Germany's U.N. ambassador welcomed it as a potential "game changer."

The Security Council has been blocked for months over Syria, with Russia and China maintaining that any moves in the U.N. body against Mr. Assad would be the first steps toward regime change by force, as happened in Libya last year.

Also Monday, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels approved additional sanctions on Syria, imposing travel bans and asset freezes on another 22 people and eight companies linked to the Assad government.

The Syrian uprising against Mr. Assad's 11-year autocratic rule has become increasingly militarized in recent weeks. In the latest unrest Monday, Syrian rights activists say army defectors killed five pro-Assad troops in a battle in the central province of Homs. They say government security forces also killed at least 10 civilians in operations against centers of protest around Syria.

Activists also say at least 60,000 people gathered in the protest hub of Douma, near Damascus, for the funerals of 11 people killed by pro-Assad forces in recent days. It was not possible to independently verify details of the funeral procession or the casualties because Syria severely restricts independent media coverage in the country.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the top US diplomat for the Middle East would press Moscow on a reported $550 million deal to sell Syria 36 advanced Yak-130 light attack fighter jets. She said Jeffrey Feltman was in the Russian capital Monday and that Syria was "issue number one on his agenda."

The advanced training aircraft could be used for attacks on ground targets and to train pilots on Syria's more advanced fleet of Mig-29 fighters, which it ordered from Russia in 2007. Moscow is one of Mr. Assad's few remaining allies, and Syria is its top arms customer.

The respected Russian business daily Kommersant first reported the deal.

Meanwhile, the Arab League mission's Sudanese chief, General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, said violence in Syria declined after league monitors began work on December 26. Speaking Monday to reporters in Cairo, al-Dabi said the observers' job is not to stop the unrest, but to monitor it.

The United Nations says violence linked to the uprising has killed more than 5,400 people. Syria says terrorists have killed about 2,000 security force members since the unrest began.

Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and AFP.

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